ELIZABETH CITY, N.C. (WAVY) — There is no denying the dangers lurking behind bars, and many of us know all too well the reality of how difficult the job can be for the corrections officers and staff — after five deaths at local correctional institutions in the past couple of years.
However, several state lawmakers are pushing for a reform of the North Carolina prison system.
Senator Bob Steinburg is the chair of the Senate Select Committee on Prison Safety, which created the Prison Reform Act. The bipartisan bill aims to improve safety within prisons, and it passed unanimously in the Senate in early July.
“It was time for somebody to do something and that somebody was me,” said Steinburg. “Many of us were aware that there were problems in the department.”
The bill was created after the 78-page federal report outlining safety and staffing issues in North Carolina prisons.
“The average lifespan of a corrections officer is 58 years old, so that’ll give you an idea of the kind of stress and strain they are under. And they have been neglected for far too long in budgetary matters, it’s just like … well … they are there,” Steinburg said.
However, under the Prison Reform Act, recruitment and retention is top priority. Currently, there are ever growing staffing shortages and some prisons have a 25 percent staffing shortage or more. Prisons with high vacancy rates would be eligible for salary supplements up to $7,500 a year under the plan.
This is in addition to a 5 percent pay hike also included in the Senate’s budget.
“That’s real money and we are hoping that is incentive for folks who are on the fence who think ‘I’m out of here,'” Steinburg said.
Tracy Little is the Deputy Secretary for the North Carolina Department of Public Safety.
“Our staff is having to work overtime, we know that they have trouble getting their vacation days off and they are tired and they work in very challenging conditions, many of our facilities are not air conditioned,” Little said. “Because of our staffing situation, we are currently in a jail backlog where offenders are being sentenced in local courts to serve an active prison term, we are having to delay their entrance into the prison system.”
Little says a step pay plan needs to be implemented because as of now, staff hired with no experience are making the same amount as veteran correctional officers.
“We try to to do everything we can to communicate to our staff, how important they are to us, can we do a better job in that? Yes we can,” Little said. “We fully acknowledge and recognize that there is work to be done.”
Another part of the reform bill offers two options to allocate more focus to the Department of Corrections. Either the department would break out as its own agency from the Department of Public Safety, or the DOC would be made into a unique agency with its own deputy secretary.
“Part of the problems that arose in 2017 were a result of it (DOC) not getting enough scrutiny and oversight that it had prior to 2011 when the Department of Corrections was placed into the Department of Public Safety,” Steinburg said.
“We will do our best to operate the best prison system we can, regardless of what agency prisons reside it,” Little said.
In the meantime, Senator Steinburg still receives messages, calls and letters weekly from those working inside the prisons who are hoping for more reform. And while it’s begun, he knows, there’s a ways to go to protect those who serve and protect within these prison walls.
“My personal goal is to make this Department of Corrections in North Carolina to be the best in the nation.”
The next step is for the Prison Reform Act to get through the House, and if passes, we will see changes enacted in May. Steinburg says he is optimistic this will happen.